Award-winning chef Charlie Trotter is closing his iconic Chicago restaurant after 25 years, setting out on a new path as bold and surprising as many of the dishes he served to the world of foodie fans he helped foster.
At 52, he's going back to college to study philosophy.
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"You can't do the same thing forever or your head just might blow up," Trotter told The Associated Press this week, rolling up the sleeves of his white chef's coat before one of the final dinners at the restaurant, Charlie Trotter's. "You can do what you do forever but you've also got to find ways to stimulate your mind."
Trotter is synonymous with gourmet cuisine, earning 10 James Beard Awards and providing a training ground for some of the country's other best-known chefs, like fellow Beard Award-winner Grant Achatz of Chicago restaurants Alinea and Next.
Charlie Trotter's earned two stars when the highly respected Michelin Guide debuted in Chicago last year.
On Friday, the restaurant's sold-out last meal will feature other chefs, such as Graham Elliott and Mindy Segal, who worked under Trotter and have earned their own culinary fame preparing special dishes.
A self-taught chef who didn't go to cooking school, Trotter has written more than a dozen cookbooks and starred in a PBS series, "The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter." He credits traveling the U.S. and Europe after college and dining at the best restaurants to develop his signature style.
"He really is somebody who changed and made a difference in this culinary world that has become so popular today," said Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation in New York. "He was one of the first to do the five, six-course extravaganza and I think that really put him on the map."
Three days before closing night, the Charlie Trotter's staff holds a typically detail-laden pre-dinner meeting, discussing specifics down to the exact dates when diners last ate at the restaurant and reminders about when to use certain wineglasses.
Dishes from the final week of menus include poached white asparagus with charred broccolini, manchego cheese and red pepper essence and root beer leaf ice cream with vanilla cremeaux and birch syrup-infused meringue.
Staff members recite the evening's menus and Trotter -- famous for being relentlessly demanding -- takes one employee to task.
"You're not reading are you?" he asks. "When you go to the table do you have a piece of paper?"
It's that kind of attention to detail that made Trotter famous. His very first employee, chef Reginald Watkins, came to Chicago from New Orleans to be at the restaurant for Trotter's final meals.
"The most important thing I learned is integrity," Watkins said. "Here I developed the principles. This isn't a job. It's a lifestyle."
Trotter announced in January that he would stop serving his restaurant's sought-after multicourse meals and instead pursue higher education. He will attend a master's degree program at either the University of Chicago or Northwestern University next year, Trotter said, after spending time traveling with his wife. He has degrees from the University of Wisconsin in political theory and philosophy.
"It's learning for learning's sake," Trotter said. "Reading some of the great books that are unread still. Only studying for studying's sake. It's sort of a lost thing."
It's a step Trotter seems aware many people wouldn't have the nerve or the means to take, but it's something he said he needs to do to remain stimulated creatively and artistically.
"There's no downside," he said. "Let's say they flunk me out in three weeks, which is completely possible. I can always go back to the restaurant business. I suppose you might call it a safety net. It's not the end of the world."
Trotter clearly is thinking philosophically about the next chapter of his life, Ungaro said.
"He's going out on top," she said. "What better way? So many other people don't have the courage and grace to do that."
Trotter said he was "looking for a second act in a sense."
"You've got to follow your instincts."